Comment »Posted on Saturday 1 November 2008 at 1:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Apparently “socialite” Paris Hilton has bagged herself a $200,000 seat on the first Virgin Galactic (for the long-term readers, you may remember one of my first posts was about the company) flight into space.

She joins other rumoured “commerc-onauts” (a phrase I believe I’ve just coined) such as William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Hawking, but has expressed some rather strange fears.

“I’m very scared to do it. What if I don’t come back?” she said. “With the whole light-years thing, what if I come back 10,000 years later, and everyone I know is dead? I’ll be like, ‘Great. Now I have to start all over.”

Ah yes Paris, that “whole light-years thing.” The esteemed Ms. Hilton appears to be referring to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, in which your perception of time can be affected relative to others, depending on your speed. In a famous thought-experiment Einstein suggested that placing one of a pair of twins on a near-light speed flight, whilst the other remains on Earth, could have some interesting effects.

Due to time dilation, the journey would take much longer from the point of view of the twin on Earth. When the space-faring twin returns, he would find that his Earth-bound brother had aged much more than him. It’s all due to the fixed speed of light, and explained by Einstein’s theory.

Paris seems to have been slacking in her Advanced Physics class however, because this effect (known as the twin paradox) can only happen at the speed of light. The Virgin Galactic flights will barely leave the atmosphere, let alone get up to 300 million metres per second, so she’s probably safe for now. Unfortunately.

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